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Shanghai’s brutal lockdown

Millions find themselves confined to quarters


A volunteer uses a megaphone to talk to residents confined to an apartment building in Shanghai last week. Associated Press/Photo by Chen Jianli/Xinhua

Shanghai’s brutal lockdown

A chilling video records trapped high-rise apartment residents in Shanghai, China, screaming at night amid that megacity’s lockdown, which began on March 28, with nearly 300,000 COVID-19 cases in the city. Health authorities announced today that three people had died.

There are voices, including among some Christians, who hail the supposed efficiency and dynamism of Chinese authoritarianism in contrast to Western democratic chaos. But the draconian COVID lockdowns in Shanghai and other major Chinese cities question the competence of China’s overlords and point to a fatal vulnerability common to autocracies.

Paganly despotic regimes typically lack nuance and prudence. Absent opposition and self-critique, they are prone to maniacal absolutism. The Biblical understanding of fallen human nature could warn such societies of these extremes. But dictators often absolutize themselves and deny any competing transcendence.

The COVID pandemic was born almost three years ago in China, where rulers claimed to have eradicated it through severe lockdowns and, later, vaccines. But now, Shanghai’s more than 25 million residents, equal to about three times the population of New York City, are largely confined to their homes under new pandemic restrictions. Official door seals, removable only by the government, keep people inside their apartments. Shanghai is China’s financial capital and a world financial center. Tens of thousands of foreign companies are based there. Closed factories in Shanghai will certainly affect global trade.

Many in Shanghai lack ready access to food and other essentials, while police state tactics punish infractions, often enacted through state agents in hazmat suits with cattle prods. Sometimes these officials kill pets. Chinese leader Xi Jinping, seemingly indifferent to Shanghai’s nocturnal screams, antiseptically calls the lockdown “dynamic COVID clearance.” Nearly 90 of China’s 100 largest cities as measured by gross domestic product have COVID quarantines, although Shanghai’s is clearly among the most extreme. Another account says 45 cities with 40 percent of China’s GNP and 373 million people (more than the total U.S. population) have full or partial lockdowns.

Many, sealed away from any debate or criticism, don’t realize that not all governments are despotic.

Persons testing positive for COVID, even if asymptomatic, must confine themselves in often crowded and unsanitary “isolation sites” in public buildings. One convention center has 50,000 beds. Sometimes waiting for mandatory official bus rides to these sites takes hours at night. Shanghai has 60 such sites, where patients sleep on camp beds with hundreds or even thousands of others in the room or hall. To escape this detention requires two consecutive negative tests. For non-COVID cases, entry into hospitals requires negative tests, which can cause lethal delays for some emergency patients. People who complain on social media are warned to remove their complaints if they want medical attention. Children, including toddlers, who test positive are sometimes taken from their parents.

Some confined Shanghai residents are forced to barter for food with neighbors, their cash now less valuable than fresh fruit and vegetables. Creepily, government drones hover outside apartment balconies, demanding, “Control your soul’s desire for freedom.”

Yet, most Chinese reputedly support the harsh lockdown. They lack access to alternative perspectives and are accustomed to deferring to the government. China has a long history of disastrous totalitarian state policies that kill millions.

Dishonesty is central to all dictatorships. Such regimes cannot publicly admit failures because any admission of vulnerability seems weak and invites opposition. Lower officials in dictatorships have little incentive for honesty with higher officials if negative reports discredit official policy. Dictators resent, fear, and constantly compare themselves to Western democracies, claiming to be superior. Any narratives implying otherwise must be suppressed, especially by China, whose authoritarianism it wants to showcase globally as the more successful alternative to liberal regimes with free speech and an open market of ideas.

China claimed to have managed COVID better than the West in 2020 and 2021 through its harsh zero tolerance for any COVID. Without transparency, the truth is murky. But there is no doubt that China’s police state ruthlessly suppresses human freedom on nearly all fronts. Shanghai’s people, locked in their homes and unable openly to complain, are mere subjects of their rulers, not partners with their government. Many, sealed away from any debate or criticism, don’t realize that not all governments are despotic.

Western regimes historically influenced by Christianity cannot ignore the agency of their own people, to whom elected governments are accountable. Democracies are often more chaotic, but their transparency and open conversations offer adaptability and correction. It’s very likely that millions trapped in Shanghai long for both.


Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.


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